This review contains spoilers.
"Make sure your partings are happy and true
Await the sun's sparkling and happy debut
Drink in the sky and the scent and the view"
The Troupe by Robert J Bennett is a beautifully wrought coming-of-age story about what it means to have a life well lived. It's about the pain and the glory of existence. It's about the connections we have to other people: the lengths to which we'll go to keep someone around out of selfishness; the yearning of wanting to connect but letting duty (and maybe cowardice) stand in your way; the sorrow and regret of knowing that you mistreated someone, didn't get to love them, and have it be too late; the hard-won wisdom of going where others will accept you the way you are. It is about the sins of vanity and pride, and how we can overcome them. It is a love story between father and son. And underlying all of it is a well-formed structure.
George, the main character, has all of the arrogance and insecurity of youth. He's a young man who wants desperately to seem older and to seem as though he has worldly experience. He is a talented pianist, but a vain and prideful one who seeks praise and accolades. That the fairies -- who demented gourmands and devotees of excess -- offer to give George "applause and attention unending" indicate that such a thing is not good for him. He is a character with a strong goal, who has structured his life around one day finding his father, and who makes an active decision to leave his job when he finds a flyer promoting The Troupe: 'The only thing that mattered now was getting out the door and on the road as soon as possible.' There is a wonderful sort of irony in George being unaware that he holds the oldest thing in creation within him until almost halfway through the book. "It is inside you, somewhere. And I don't know where it came from, but I think it to be very, very old. Even older than me." And he has a lovely moment with the personification of the zephyr wind, who offers her services to him "Because you were kind when you did not have to be. I don't think you understand how rare that often is."
George enters the second act when the man he thinks is his father (Heironomo Silenus, "Oldest Wanderer, Harvester of Echoes, Bearer of Lights Eternal, Master of Stage and Speech and Song"), tells him, "Your three weeks are up, kid". It's time for George to know how the world was created. At the midpoint, George enters the horrible gray reaches, which makes it clear what's at stake -- this horrible void of negative blackness, and that beast that lives under the world -- a beast so awful that it can make you insane to look at it. The true stakes to the troupe's quest are revealed; the gray reaches is what happens without the song.
Then, still at the midpoint, George returns from the reaches to find his old performance place torched and a former co-worker killed. George meets his shadow, the wolf, and becomes worried over the potential consequences if the troupe really is only traveling to find the song, not perform. External and internecine pressure increases when Silenus says things are getting dangerous, the troupe is running out of money, and they've lost their lead act, Kingsley. On top of that, George realizes he doesn't really know the woman he's in love with. But of course, George doesn't really know his father, or anyone in the troupe. He doesn't know himself or what he's capable of.
A significant image motif in The Troupe is that of the distorted double, which manifests in the dummies of the troupe that the wolves made, vaudeville minstrels, Kingsley's awful puppets, the wood-faces that George made when he was younger, and the botkines the fairies make of the troupe at the end. The distorted double also manifests in the emergency copies that Silenus makes on the first night George meets him, so the troupe can escape the diverted wolves. 'They were staring in at their own reflections,' which were 'faint versions of their own faces.' The dummies of the troupe that the wolves make, in their attempt to increase their knowledge, were 'all deformed and twisted.' This is like what has happened to the troupe itself, after the decisions they've reached, the personal sacrifices and compromises they've made, and the lengths they've gone to in their time finding and performing the Song.
The fairies, too, are distorted doubles who "do not resemble their original selves. And they are very, very vain, so they hide their faces." The fairies also make botkines of the troupe: "A botkine, like any art, is mostly suggestion and assumption -- the creator suggests, the audience assumes and fills in the rest." George is perplexed as to why his own botkine looked angry; George thought himself many things, but angry was not one of them. The reader knows that George is angry, and the member of the troupe are often confronted with themselves and the perception that others have. Ofelia, the fairy lady, tells Fanny: "when you made your botkine, I was almost sure it looked like someone I knew." Fanny also has a skewed perception of herself, for other reasons.
The set of dummies the wolves have made include George, who is wearing a 'ratty tweed jacket,' like the one he thinks makes him look mature. This is a distorted version of his own self-delusion, a theme that is connected to the motif of the distorted double. We think we know who we are, but it's an illusion, a performance, "inspid roles." Silenus says, "The human aptitude for self-deception is unfathomable, kid. If it wasn't, we'd be out of a job." Colette pretends to be a princess to make her life easier: "Or perhaps she had briefly felt that she would rather be a false person, a fabricated character, than a real one in such a bitter and callous world, and sought comfort in her little creation."
There is an especially interesting aspect of The Troupe in the shadow-double of the one wolf who has "the tiniest, tiniest bit" of the Light -- his "diametrical opposite, my absolute antithesis" -- in him. The wolf tells George, "I've been following you all for months, trying to get every bit of information on you I could!" This is just like George himself, who obsessively collected any information he could on his father's troupe, and arranged his whole career so he could be in the position to find his father. "This is where I collect all my little findings, all my little discoveries about you and your company of actors," the wolf says. The wolf also echoes George's anger and regret over how Silenus has treated him, and how both George and the wolf share a sense of self-loathing. Both think they have wasted their time and gotten everything wrong about their knowledge of the troupe, even after their preparation -- and at least in George's case, his expectation.
The scenes are rich with conflict and subtext. There is one particular scene where Colette and the troupe argue about something in a diner concurrently with a racist old couple arguing next to them. The characters have secrets, relationships to other characters that we're not privy to, and complicated connections.
The character of Stanley is like a character out of a silent movie, not just for his silence, but how Bennett illustrates his small actions and mannerisms, especially when he's sad. If Stanley (and especially his goodbyes with George) doesn't make you cry, you are made of stone. You fail the Turing test.
The descriptions in the book are delicate and vivid, and there are more dells and barrows than I've read in anything before:
"In the weak starlight it was a lonely, disquieting place, snow-decked and littered with old industrial equipment and rusting chains, and splintered wood that sometimes had the look of bones."
"He saw a barrow, wet and quiet, the gray sunlight dribbling down into its hollow to glance across glistening stones."
"Star lilies grew from the wet gravel in the bottom of the dell, and in some places there was a blue-fringed moss that almost seemed to glow."
"And when that was done you were speeding along through leafless forests and sodden fields and tumbledown towns with the white winter sky weighing down upon you."
In the third act, the troupe separates in the fairy castle, but cohere as a team and contribute in highly individual ways to defeat the demented fairies and the wolves. George gets to deliver his best performance, though no one sees it happen. But this vain boy has changed, especially after losing his father, to the point where he knows there are much more important things than showing off to an audience for accolades, and he changes to the point where he lives a simple, modest life with his daughter (and his often-absent though loved wife). He changes to the point where he doesn't have to be like Silenus, wandering the world alone, searching endlessly for the next piece of the song ("Time makes monsters of us all"), or like Stanley, who let his duty of holding the song inside himself get in the way of connecting with his son. Both Stanley and George have regrets: "I've… I've treated Stanley horrible, and I've been so arrogant and made so many mistakes."
"He is singing about us as he leads the wolves away from you. It is all that concerns him, all he wants to think of. He sings of this moment, and the girl he loved, and the child she bore. You, George." -- George's (dead) mother
Some time later, George has a daughter, and they sing the song together at home. He is no longer an audience member in his own life. The best way to honor this spark of life is to keep close to the people we love, and what is the good of a life as long as Silenus's if we spend it for the sake of acquiring something, even if it's the original song of creation? Or if regrets make up the whole of our heart, as Silenus said to the fairy lady. George and his daughter have the song within them. They stay together, in one place, and sing it together. He recreates time and the world as he recreates himself.